This is a pretty silly adaptation (by Basu Chatterjee, no less!) of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps which nonetheless manages to be quite satisfying entertainment. Basu Sahab is a little out of his element, but that works for me since I find most of his films similar in nature to watching paint dry. Sticklers for things like continuity, context, and attention to detail might not enjoy it as much as I did; but with my dear friend Suhan translating as we went, it made for a very pleasant afternoon watch-along. There are some of the director’s finer touches here too: authentic settings, intimate and humorous interactions between people, plenty of local color.
Rajesh Khanna is lots of fun as a man drawn unwillingly into a nest of enemy spies and intrigue with the future of his country riding on his shoulders. His acting is understated and he is ably supported by Neetu Singh and a host of character actors. And if—like Suhan and myself—you find Rajesh’s chest hair good enough reason to see a movie (are we the only two? really?), be assured that he changes his clothes every other minute in order to throw off his pursuers. I have never seen so many outfits on one man in my life!
Chhaya (Neetu) and Amit Narayan (Rajesh) are in love and Chhaya wants to get married. Amit doesn’t see why they have to get married and wants to keep things as they are. Wedding dates are set and then moved, to her great frustration.
This is really their only point of discord (as big as it is, I guess) and Neetu and Rajesh show the same sweet chemistry that they did in Maha Chor. It is also an excuse for a cute song: “Shaadi Karne Se Pyaar Kam Ho Jaata Hai” which I understand from Suhan was a hit; it is one of only two songs, the other being the theme throughout as Amit is on the run.
Amit lives alone, and is also very fond of Chhaya’s family: father (Om Shivpuri), mother (Dina Pathak), little brother Raju (Master Raju Shrestha, my favorite kid ever) and sister Maya (Rozeena? if anyone can fill us in on cute little sister’s identity we will be grateful because she is very cute and we love her and she also gets some of the best outfits).
It is Diwali, and as children burst crackers and set off potentially limb-severing fireworks, Amit’s upstairs neighbor Raman (Vinod Mehra) has been watching a group of men in a tent just outside the building’s courtyard. They also appear to be keeping tabs on him, and have his manservant in their pay. Now Raman tosses furniture about the room and loads a pistol as I admire his silk lunghi-kurta—lusciously red and looking so comfortable. As my attention turns to that marvellous blue lamp he takes a body out of a trunk, lays it out on the floor, sprinkles it with whiskey and as another set of firecrackers explode outside, he shoots the poor dead guy’s face off.
Either red is used as a symbolic color here (and I don’t mean the obnoxious T Series logo which I try to ignore) or the costumer and set designer had a fondness for it. In any case, red is splashed about lavishly in pretty much every frame of the film. When Amit returns home, Raman is waiting for him and forces his way in. He explains to Amit that he is a spy for India and that he is being watched by enemy agents (he shows the tent and its inhabitants to Amit through the window). He has set up his own suicide (using a morgue body) (although I don’t know why he felt he needed to trash the room to stage a suicide, but never mind) to throw the enemies off his trail and needs to stay with Amit for a few days in hiding. The unnamed enemy is plotting to destroy India’s valuable relationship with an African country called Mazaland (are you laughing yet?) by assassinating its Chief Minister when he arrives November 19 at the Delhi International Airport.
Raman wants to wait until his enemies hear of his “suicide” and depart before he sets off for Delhi to stop the assassination himself. He shaves his beard and dons thick black glasses to disguise himself and Amit reluctantly agrees to let him stay for a few days.
The enemy agents are not put off by the sensational news of Raman’s suicide and stay put themselves. The next day Raman pries the back off his watch; hidden behind the watch face is a teeny-tiny red notebook. He opens it up and begins writing.
Amit is meanwhile visiting Chhaya and her family again to talk about wedding details. As I said earlier, one of the things I liked about this film is the realism of the settings. Chhaya’s home is big but in need of some TLC, not an unrealistically pristine house. And though I can’t understand most of the “room talk” her family is clearly a close one, warm and teasing with one another.
The contrast between this comfortable normalcy and what Amit finds when he returns home is shocking.
Raman has been murdered and Amit’s living room turned upside down, and the men in the tent outside have disappeared. As Amit wonders what to do next (he has an amusing—to me anyway—fantasy about being arrested for murder after calling in the cops, and given the general incompetence of filmi police I don’t blame him) he makes a cup of tea. In the sugar jar is the not-as-teeny-tiny-as-it-used-to-be red notebook, hidden by Raman.
I don’t think this one would fit behind a watch face! Details! I digress. Raman has written down some clues about the gang (known to him only as Z, P, R and M) and their plan to kill the Chief Minister of Mazaland. He begs Amit to stop them himself: to take the notebook with him to Delhi and hand it over to the police there.
Although it was pitch-dark outside moments ago, Amit looks out the window and the sun is shining brightly as the dudhwala approaches on his bicycle. Amit takes off his own clothes very skillfully underneath a towel, and gives the milkman money for his dhoti-kurta—which he somewhat unwillingly gives up.
And so Amit’s endless journey of swapping outfits and changing clothes begins. Although we sadly aren’t shown the event, the poor milkman presumably finds the grim scene in Amit’s living room and calls the police, all the while clad only in his chaddies (also unfortunately, he is no Garam Dharam).
The police naturally assume that Amit is the culprit and put out an all-points bulletin for his arrest. We also now come face to face with the enemy gang and it’s not pretty. Pinto (Pinchoo Kapoor) runs a garage as a front for their treasonous activities. Pinto is not at all pleased that Amit has escaped the man he had left to watch him—apparently he knows about the incredible enlarging notebook too although he didn’t think to look in the sugar jar for it. He tells his henchman Sikandar (an uncredited Yunus Parvez) to go to the train station and look for Amit there, knowing that he will be heading for Delhi.
The police too have thought of looking at the station, and Amit embarks on a game of cat and mouse with both Pinto’s men and the cops. Forced to leave the Delhi train, Amit now continues his trip across the Indian countryside, changing his clothes as he goes (sometimes with hilarious results) and traveling by any means he can find, and getting help from people he comes across—with Pinto and the police hot on his trail. Suhan translated as much of what happens as she could, but I know I missed a lot of humor in Amit’s interactions with the local people.
One example is a scene where Amit, now dressed like a Congress member, is mistaken for a politician whom local dignitaries have been expecting. They put a single garland around his neck, which he is then instructed to remove so each VIP can re-garland him with it in turn. It’s a very sweet way of illustrating rural budget constraints!
But Pinto is dogged in his pursuit, and Amit isn’t even sure where exactly he needs to go in order to stop the assassins from getting to the airport. It’s a long way from Bombay to Delhi and as the days left until November 19th dwindle, Amit has some close calls!
He also enlists the help of a lovely doctor named Nandita (Simple Kapadia, who manages to look beautiful despite her ginormous glasses, which is more than I can say I ever managed) and her kindly father (AK Hangal), and it’s soon obvious that Nandita is falling for Amit too.
Will he make it to Delhi in time? Will he find the enemy’s camp and manage to stop the assassination? Can India possibly survive the severing of ties with Mazaland if he doesn’t? Who is the real brains behind this plot, anyway? And will he ever set a wedding date with Chhaya (who has disappeared from the film)? Or will he fall in love with owl-eyed Nandita?
If you enjoy a rollicking suspense caper and don’t mind a few slipshod missteps along the way (I personally think they add to the fun), then you will probably enjoy this (it will help a lot if you speak Hindi or have a handy translator nearby). It helps to be a Rajesh fan too—it is very much his movie. He’s in just about every scene, and he’s believable without most of the mannerisms he is famous for. There are many smaller moments which add luster to the whole; and speaking of luster, look at Pradeep Kumar in a brocade dressing gown, living in a house we’ve seen before. I used to think this was a set, but now I’m wondering. It looks much the same here as it did in Namak Haraam five years earlier, and in Chorni four years later.
Maybe somebody will recognize the Stained Glass Cat House and tell me where it is some day!
An OCD mind is a terrible thing to waste.